Despite some heart-tugging/over-the-top stereotypes to which some may object as disrespectful to the Civil Rights theme, director Tate Taylor of "The Help," based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett (The Help (Movie Tie-In)), creates a faithful rendition of the story's tone--depicting the sometimes uneasy coalition between the white and black communities of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 60s as epitomized by the voices of three distinct personalities: Skeeter, a young white graduate from Ole Miss whose ambition to be a writer overrides her desire to please her mother and marry, Abelene, a black maid who has raised seventeen white children and Minny, an outspoken black domestic whose big mouth never fails to lose her a good position.
Emma Stone trades outrageous romantic comedy for a more ambitious and sedate role of portraying the earnest work-a-bee Skeeter. Physically, Stone is much more attractive than the Skeeter of the novel; I got the feeling she was holding back in her depiction--attempting to tone down her natural enthusiasm to emulate the book's character--a young woman whose body type refuses to conform to the beauty of that time and psychologically poised on the fence between the generations of the repressed 50s and the more liberated 70s. Overall, her performance seems to lack sparkle, coming off at times as madcap comedy--the scene where she straightens her hair for her big date and then arrives with her head askew from a frantic ride in a tractor-toting truck--or quietly appalled--her sneaky behind-the-scenes writing fails to indicate enough nervousness that would suggest the horrific life-threatening repercussions of the time period.
Abelene (Viola Davis) possesses a quiet dignity that sometimes seems too modern a sensibility for a black domestic that faced the loss of her livelihood, a severe beating, a jail sentence, death or a combination of all four. Nevertheless, the actress does a great job with her material and will most likely be cited for an Oscar nomination. In a similar manner, Octavia Spencer completely replicates the novel's Minny and is a joy to behold.
Some of the other character choices left more to be desired--in particular, Allison Janney as Skeeter's mother. Not only was the sense of her relationship with her daughter in the film different from the Steel Magnolia who stubbornly combats cancer in the novel, her exuberant persistence seems out of context for the novel's more rigid 1960s' South. Here, the screenplay must claim most of the blame; Skeeter's mother shows definite liberal tendencies--speaking of "courage skipping a generation" and tossing the horrific Hilly off her front porch as if that would ever happen in a world where appearances and crisp cool emotionless interchanges were uppermost for the upper crust.
Along this line, the entire scene where the mystery of Constantine is finally relayed to the unsuspecting Skeeter seemed completely out of character and out of context with the sensibility of the milieu. Never, in a million years would Skeeter's mother ever tell her about the episode with Constantine, her daughter Rachel and the women's group meeting in the Phelan home. And why not make the character of Rachel look white as depicted in the book? Would it make sense for Rachel, the daughter of the domestic, to come to the front door, no matter where `Up North' she was living? Wouldn't Mrs. Phelan have handled that in the kitchen where such situations, at that time, belonged? Why ruin the drama of the `she looks white' surprise moment? The novel's 1960s' Mrs. Phelan would never think twice about her decision and she would never approve of Skeeter crossing the line and writing a book promoting the roles of black maids in a white household. Obviously, Taylor as director and screenwriter of this film version of "The Help" decided to give the film a modern twist that would better appeal to the sensibilities of today's audience. This almost saccharine-y veneer adds a positive gloss to the book's less descriptive outcome for the three main characters.
Nonetheless, "The Help" completely absorbs its audience for the full length of its two hour and seventeen minute running time. Throughout, a sense of fun prevails as epitomized by Minny's frequent and ominous wailing over "the Terrible Awful" she enacted upon the malicious Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the viewer's growing awareness and eventual understanding of just what this is as seen from the vantage points of those it effects: Missus Walters (the wonderful Sissy Spacek), Hilly, Minny and Celia Foote (played with just the right "ditz" factor by Jessica Chastain). Lacking only is the feeling of imminent danger for the black women involved in a scheme that could have cost them their lives and a real sense of Skeeter committing the forbidden--the book's scene of Skeeter reading the Jim Crow laws in the library, subsequently stealing the pamphlet and consequently fearing Hilly will see the stolen goods and--oh no--the working manuscript of the maids' interviews when Skeeter leaves behind her messenger bag is reduced to a two second sequence where Hilly glimpses the pamphlet during a conversation between the two characters. The audience never fully understands the consequences of Skeeter's flouting and straying from tradition. She is shunned, at first for her misfit personality, her anti-Junior League appearance and then for her outrageousness, but she doggedly carries on her clandestine Civil Rights campaign suggesting immunity to her circumstances rather than the impact of a lived experience.
Bottom line? For the most part, by viewing Tate Taylor's "The Help" as a madcap escapade where one white woman and a bevy of black women band together to speak out during the treacherous times of the Civil Rights Movement in the Jim Crow South and flout, in their small way, the traditions of generations will insure a good film experience. The depiction of Hilly and her band of Junior Leaguers as overtly malicious, gossipy and superficial wielders of ultimate power over the lives and welfare of their black servants might seem almost cartoon-ish and disrespectful to the reality of a treacherous time in American history. However, this is meant as a devise to increase the innate gravitas of Viola Davis' performance--her eyes alone convey a lifetime of pain infused with resilience gleaned by small joys--and to spotlight Minny, although beaten by a drunken husband as she is, as another symbol of perseverance through the other avenue of outrageous outspokenness and familial familiarity combined with the innate mothering aspects of the true nurturer. Whether or not you can overlook what may be deemed as stereotypical matters not in the overall outcome. The film entertains with a feel good sentimentality that works despite some jarring modern sensibilities thrown into the ultimate mix that is not unlike Minny's celebrated pie: rich chocolate-y goodness and pure blarney. Recommended. Diana Faillace Von Behren "reneofc"
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Diana Faillace Von Behren (reneofc)
I like just about anything. My curiosity tends to be insatiable--I love the "finding out" and the "ah-ha" moments. Usually I review a book or film with the … more
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There are male viewers who will enjoyThe Help, but Mississippi native Tate Taylor aims his adaptation squarely at the female readers who made Kathryn Stockett's novel a bestseller. If the multi-character narrative revolves around race relations in the Kennedy-era South, the perspective belongs to the women. Veteran maid Aibileen (Doubt's Viola Davis in an Oscar-worthy performance) provides the heartfelt narration that brackets the story. A widow devastated by the death of her son, she takes pride in the 17 children she has helped to raise, but she's hardly fulfilled. That changes when Skeeter (Easy A's Emma Stone) returns home after college. Unlike her peers, Skeeter wants to work, so she gets a job as a newspaper columnist. But she really longs to write about Jackson's domestics, so she meets with Aibileen in secret--after much cajoling and the promise of anonymity. When Aibileen's smart-mouthed friend Minny (breakout star Octavia Spencer) breaches her uptight employer's protocol, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) gives her the boot, and she ends up in the employ of local outcast Celia (Jessica Chastain, hilarious and heartbreaking), who can't catch a break due to her dirt-poor origins. After the murder of Medgar Evers, even more maids, Minny among them, bring their stories to Skeeter, leading to a book that scandalizes the town--in a good way. Not sinceSteel Magnoliashas Hollywood produced a Southern woman's picture more likely to produce buckets of tears (and almost as many ...